If there really were such a thing as alt-country radio, it would be difficult to imagine Wilco's new album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, getting played there. By all accounts, the band's fourth disc is a big flying, techno-tinged "Fuck you!" to the group's old label, Reprise Records, which forced bandleader Jeff Tweedy to lug his tapes to another wing of the AOL Time Warner empire because of the flagging sales of Wilco's previous opuses.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot continues along the rock-oriented path of Wilco's last release, 1999's Summerteeth. While older fans may grumble about this exodus from the band's countryish roots, they'll probably still be won over by the record's moody mysticism. Pruning out the exaggerated twangs and off-key affectations of the insurgent country scene in favor of electronic filigrees and indie rock angularities, Tweedy leaves himself exposed in ways he didn't when he had his No Depression rep to hide behind.
The disc opens with what amounts to a musical throw-down, letting folks know this ain't your ordinary Wilco outing. "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is a meandering, indulgent space-rock tune that most bands would tuck toward the end of an album. If the song's droning guitars and formless repetition send folks rushing for the fast-forward button, they'll happily discover the perky "Kamera." Farther along, Tweedy informs several pop tunes with an awareness of music's spiritual limits: On "Radio Cure" he questions the power of pop culture to save a doomed romance, while on "Heavy Metal Drummer" he praises the simple joys of a good, dumb rock song.
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Overall, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is neither redemptive nor transcendent, but it is compelling in unexpected ways, fading in and out like a far-off radio station you wish you could tune in better. Although the album occasionally echoes the preening vainglory of earlier Wilco efforts, Tweedy deserves credit for moving past the tropes of twangcore and his hipster-hick icon status to a more direct style of expression. There are flashes of his old "Aren't I clever?" persona, but the best songs here seem more personal and sincere and less like stylish rock-star exercises. At last Tweedy seems to have joined the rest of the human race, searching and questioning the world around him. Fifteen years into his musical career, he seems ready to admit that while he knows a few witty lyrics aren't enough, it's all he has to offer -- and all he wants to hear.